Thursday, February 03, 2005

Muslim Internet: Reduce, Fragment, Change in Values

By Tarek. A Ghanem

Does the Internet change the way Islam is thought of and represented?
I went to the lecture, maybe not even with the intention of reviewing it, and here I am. What I came out with—despite my observation that most of the audience did not understand the lecture for what it was, or appreciate the genuine sense of subtlety and profound research talent—was an intellectual “itch.” Despite the distance that could be sensed between the subject matter—“Islam and the Internet”—and the distance that the paradigmatic subtext of the work had traveled along in its inherent chain of thought, the work proved to be well constructed; as its intellectual foundations were solid enough to take the argument to a high dialectical edifice.

The lecture, which took place on October 10 at the Goethe Institute, the German Cultural Center in Cairo , as a part of the German Festival filled the lecture hall completely.

How could a topic like “Islam and the Internet” knock with a subtle hand on the high doors of pressing debates such as “modernism and traditionalism,” “personal judgment,” “individualism and personal interpretation of text,” “virtual Ummah,” “the referential position of scripture, text, and individuals,” “role and qualification of a scholar,” and many more? Although the research did not go outside the Muslim electronic existence on the World Wide Web, the reflections of all such ideas on the realm of the work was noticed. Is the Internet an actual reflection of the Muslim reality? Or, is reality reflecting itself on the Muslim Internet? Is the “online” a direct indication of the “offline”? Or is “online” contributing to things going “offline” (as the Internet comes with inherited values, generated from its modern, Western designation)?

Dr. Albrecht Hofheinz, a subtle and sober voice, who I had the pleasure of meeting after the lecture to discuss his work, revealed interesting findings. His lecture brushed away many general assumptions about the issue at hand; mostly relating to the sensationalist—to say the least—“terrorist” Web sites. What was even more interesting was his introductory remark that only the Internet, unlike the introduction of other technological advancements, such as the television, was not received with jurisprudential debate concerning its validity: Its scope, impact, and lawfulness has not been debated amongst Moslem scholars, unlike its technological sisters that, throughout history, were received by a thorough debate on their bearing and their impact on the quality of the Muslim individual in relation to his God, which ultimately determines their position.

In spite of the lack of scholarly attention, the cultural and moral dimensions of the Internet have been the subject of heated debate in many circles. Hofheinz mainly focuses on “The Internet and the Change of Moral Values in Arab Societies.” Because the economic benefits of the Internet, in his view, were never seen as problematic, his main interest in the Arab use of the Internet focuses more on the sociological. Against the falsehood of equating the Arab and Muslim use and development of the Internet as “e-jihad,” he tries to unearth the actual, true effect of the Internet on Arabs, especially in relation to Islamic interests, and how this is affecting moral values.

Amongst the top 150 most popular Arab Web sites, there are 50 religious ones. Arabs seem to have a vivid interest in religion. This number is not matched by any other country or region in the world, including the US, where religion plays an important role in many aspects of society.

Statistically speaking, as Hofheinz’s research shows, in 2002, the total number of Internet users in the Arab world was 7.5 million, which is 3 percent of the Arab population. By the end of 2005, the number is expected to reach 25 million, still only 8 percent of the Arab population. In particular, Egypt and Saudi Arabia will be mainly responsible for this growth. However, economic factors will hinder further increase of this percentage; according to Hofheinz, a maximum of 15 percent is the highest that could be achieved, considering the socio-economic reality.

As he asserts, the Internet, in essence, is a medium for the younger generation. And, of course, as youth constitutes a phase of moral and intellectual formation and development, the cyber-impact could be intensified, especially when dealing with a topic as sensitive as religion. The work deals with how the inherent values of the Internet are reflected on the Muslim cyber-existence. The main users of the Internet are middle-aged professionals, but now include many other social groups. For them all, the Web seems to be a particularly suitable space for the process of “socialization”—the main reason for the change of values in the Arab world. The findings that more women are using the Internet than men, that more and more people with a low educational background go online, and that most users belong to the urbanized population, surely contribute to this change in values.

Still, the Arab Internet is a not a mass medium for private use. However, for a special part of society who are intensively using the Net, namely students and graduates of higher education, journalists, civil servants, politicians, parties, activists, big companies, its effect is becoming more instrumental. The use of the Internet started for the purpose of communicating with relatives abroad. Now, it is these same people who rely on it for a long term experience for two purposes: gathering information and communication. A third use, which seems exceptionally popular amongst Arabs, is the discussion forums. The three main (“golden”) taboos here are religion, politics, and male-female relations. Islamists and nationalists seem to conquer the floor of the debates, creating an “Islamist nationalist debate,” which is not a new discursive product, but one that reinforces itself from the offline mass media. Also, information gathering from non-local and critical sources (like Al-Jazeera and the BBC) is a popular motivation for going online.

As for the general picture of the majority of Islamic sites, they are moderate and reformist. They predominantly consist of non-political Salafie neo-fundamentalist voices and opinions that call for moral reformation. This Islam seems to flourish on the Net because of the funding coming from the “oil-money Islam,” generated by the wealthy Gulf. Hofheinz emphasizes that the much less popular “militant” message is mainly related to the occupied territories, such as Palestine and Iraq. Even for Arab activists, Cyberspace is still no more than a source for research, not for mobilization of common interests. We are reminded that the majority of Arab Web surfers are in fact not politically minded at all.

A picture of the minarets of Al-Azhar at night, the oldest functioning university in the world and the lighthouse of Islamic scholarship.
It is no wonder that the Internet is very popular amongst the youth. The possibility of transformation through the use of the Internet will depend on how the content and means of communication will acquire greater meaning in the socialization of the youth and the formation of their opinions. Especially in the formation of opinion, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and UAE take the lead (the last two especially for financial reasons). This is proven by the fact that most of the Arab Web sites, religious or otherwise, originate in or are funded by resources from the Gulf. Reality shows that although, theoretically speaking, the Internet is a medium in which people with little knowledge can publish their opinions, in practice, economic force is stronger in determining who has a voice and an audience.

One can conclude that the essence of Muslim cyber-presence seems to conform to axioms and the conditions that created electronic space; modernity’s commitment to mass communication. As a state abstracted by values such as individualism, religious freedom, and freedom of expression, among many others, its products necessarily inherit such values. The products of modernity, for better or worse, are not value free. The values of modernity slip, intentionally or unintentionally, into the intellectual and technological products under the modern condition. These products represent the conditions they were created in. To be aware of that, to see the effects of that, to deal with that—in one way or another—is the heart of the matter. Let us now have a closer look at the biggest Islamic Web sites in the context of this thought.

It is not a coincidence that the biggest Islamic Web sites are subscribers to modernist Islam. The neat looking and high-tech Web site of popular numero uno preacher Amr Khaled ( comes to the forefront. It is second to IslamOnline (IOL). After Amr Khaled has been the star of many shows on numerous satellite channels, the cable network seems not to be enough. Amr Khaled’s Web site, too, tops all. The Web site, a byproduct of mass education, fragmented knowledge, reverence for the printed word, and an avant garde setting, enjoys incredible and ascending popularity. With its positivist and dynamic message and socially conscious discourse as its essence, it easily won the top position.

Our Web site, IOL, conquered the top of Muslim online positions. The original message of IOL is to offer a portal for modernist and activist Islamic discourse. In theory, this discourse, reformist in nature, tries to find a middle ground between modernity, with all its axioms, and Islam, with both its principles and various understandings of those principles. IOL now offers many streams of thought within modernist Islam, more diverse than that of Amr Khaled’s and other Web sites. In a meeting with Dr. Hofheinz, Hisham Ja`far, the editor-in-chief of the Arabic section of IOL, explained to the researcher that IslamOnline has managed not to be merely a Web site associated with the thoughts of Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, the chairman of the board. It has become a “reference for discourse,” a modernist, liberal, and reformist one. With activism being at the heart of the Web site, IslamOnline tries to reach out to the “sociological” backdoor of the Internet, bringing together many voices and efforts.

Of course the Internet has provided an excellent opportunity to “reform” Muslim thought; to try to marry the untrusting couple, Islam and modernity. Modern Islam has found a new medium for itself. On the other hand, traditional Islam, with its comprehensive and interconnected system of knowledge, uninterrupted chains of transmission of teaching (silsilah), reverence for qualified and authorized scholars and teachers, detachment from the worldly dimension and emphasis on the spiritual dimension, seems to be drawn to the backstage of Cyberspace. The silsilah has always been an important institution and a major criterion for legitimization in all traditional Islamic sciences such as jurisprudence, Hadith, tafseer (exegesis), Qur'anic recitation and tasawwuf.

As a medium, the Internet, with its setting and structure, seems to favor modernist Islam. For the Internet, with its basic notion of unlimited access to all, provides equal footing for the qualified and the commoner alike. There is now the boundless and self-perpetuating electronic space where everyone is free to publish their interpretation and judgment. The Qur’an and the Sunnah are being discussed on popular forums, unlike the in the 7th century, for example, when the discussion of such topics was confined to “qualified” and specialized scholars. Oversimplification and then absolutization seem to be the order of the day. This has led to what Hofheinz has termed “My Islam”: a lingo spread on discussion forums and personal web sites wherein generalizations and statements like “the Islam I know”… “Islam as everyone knows is” are familiar; hence, “My Islam”.

The Internet, as it gives equal access to all e-publishers, might create a virtual but unrealistic account of both the publisher/author and readership. Having an interactive cyber-existence for each party or person could make them look on a par with each other. For example, both al-Azhar, the oldest functioning university in the world and vanguard of Islamic scholarship, and a marginal heretical group could appear to share equal status and credibility, by the grace of having one Web site each. For someone who does not know much about the Islamic and Muslim makeup, both could look equally influential. Moreover, any Web page, as it comes in a technological wrapping, could bear the fake seal of “qualification”—especially since there is no actual contact with the author. In this, the Internet seems to further deepen the gulf between authorship and authority.

The values that the Internet carries are suitable and befitting to a certain Islam. The significant point here is that, as the Internet helps create a “virtual sense” of contact with the outside world and a sense of independence from one’s local surroundings, it undoubtedly contributes to the weakening of the traditional as well as the social understanding of oneself. Surely, this will be mirrored in one’s religiosity.

Nonetheless, Hofheinz sees that the religion of the Internet is just one offering amongst many. That feeling of autonomy with regard to reading a text and understanding it is what the young are trying to achieve through keeping themselves away from the established religious authority; the same axiom of modernist Islam. In that, an Islam based on few references (vis-à-vis that of traditional Islam which is based on qualified and established works of successive religious scholarly authority) is given precedence. All popular Salafie-inclined portals e-publish such reductionist sources.

Despite the unlimited access the Web offers, the reduction, coupled with fragmentation, of Islam and its “re-prioritization” continues. The result, as Hofheinz brilliantly diagnoses, is the “canonization of information” by the popular electronic outlets. Cyber-individuality may seem to be confined to its domain; that of the individual’s right to access and to debate. However, the generation which is now dealing with the Internet will grow and claim their role in affecting public life in the Arab social and religious space. Whether Arabs realize how the Internet works as a virus that imports its integral values into their religious thought is a question that I, for one, believe will take more space in the future; whether in the offsite realm, or the onsite one is an altogether different question. The Internet seems to prove itself as another ground for the individualistic and modernist “My Islam” to stand against the authentic “traditional Islam”.


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